Beyond Truth & Punishment in Transitional Justice

73 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2013 Last revised: 13 Sep 2014

See all articles by Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf

Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law; University of Maryland School of Medicine

Date Written: September 6, 2013


Many societies have reckoned with how to deal with issues of truth and punishment following a period of massive human rights violations. Yet, almost 70 years since the Nuremberg trials and 20 years since the truth commission in South Africa, there is little clarity on how each mechanism contributes towards its objectives and in which transitional contexts. This paper evaluates the search for justice in the aftermath of atrocities in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia by examining each country’s approach to truth-telling and punishment. Scholars and practitioners often claim that truth commissions and courts contribute to a host of justice-promoting goals despite their varying levels of success in post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies. This paper uses data gathered from field research to assess the contribution of these mechanisms to their stated objectives from the perspectives of victims and the affected societies. It demonstrates that truth commissions have less perceived success meeting their stated objectives in post-conflict versus post authoritarian societies due to the relative size of victim and perpetrator classes and the weakness of state institutions. It finds that truth commissions can have more perceived success in post-conflict contexts when combined with a court because of mutually-reinforcing effects. This paper argues that it is critical to limit the number of goals that truth commissions and trials can reasonably be expected to contribute to as opposed to burdening them with multiple objectives, which create unattainable expectations. It questions the reflexive use of truth commissions and trials in post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies and concludes that neither "truth" nor "punishment" is sufficient.

Keywords: International Law, International Human Rights Law, Transitional Justice, Criminal Law & Theory, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Courts & Tribunals, Remedies

Suggested Citation

Sirleaf, Matiangai V. S., Beyond Truth & Punishment in Transitional Justice (September 6, 2013). Virginia Journal of International Law, 2014, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 13-21, Available at SSRN: or

Matiangai V. S. Sirleaf (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States
(410) 706-4097 (Phone)


University of Maryland School of Medicine ( email )

655 W. Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
United States

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